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December 17, 2011

China Implements Real Name Registration Rule for Microbloggers in Beijing

By Stan Abrams

This has been anticipated for some time, although aside from the so-called Real Name, or Real ID, registration system for users, no one really knew what else might be tossed into a new set of rules designed to regulate microblogs. There are still a lot of questions left to be answered as to how this new set of rules will be interpreted and enforced (welcome to the world of a China lawyer, folks), but the text does tell us a few things.

First, let me throw out a few links for you:

The text itself, in Chinese only at this point, from Xinhua: 北京市微博客发展管理若干规定.  If you’re looking for commentary in Chinese, you probably already know where to look, and you can always cut and paste the title of the law into Baidu, and you’ll get lots of other news stories and links to video.

For English-language news and commentary, start with “New Microblog Controls” over at China Media Project, which also has some translated bits. You can then go on to the usual suspects, including China Daily and iChinaStock

(EconMatters Note: Here is the English link dated 16 Dec. from Xinhua - Beijing requires real names in microblog registration.  According to Xinhua, microbloggers are free to choose their screen names. Nearly 600 million microblogging IDs are registered with Beijing's seven microblogging service providers, including popular Sina Weibo and Sohu, which have 280 million and 120 million microblog users, respectively.)

Sina Commands 56% of China's Microblog Market
Chart Source: resonancechina.com, 30 Mar. 2011 (Added by EconMatters)

I only have a couple of comments at this point. For one thing, I’m a bit unclear as to why this set of rules was issued by the Beijing government (and several municipal agencies) as opposed to State-level authorities. To be sure, Beijing is so big and important that these rules will, I assume, set the de facto standard for the entire country.

So that’s not so important at the end of the day, but I am curious. I’m sure someone in the know will discuss the issue at some point. Note that the rules themselves do not address the obvious jurisdictional questions, which again is odd given that the Internet is not exactly bound by municipal geography.

Additionally, and what is getting the most press, is the Real ID provision. In the most simple terms, this will mean that users will have to register using their ID numbers; failure to do so would mean no access to microblog services. Again, this is the part that everyone knew was coming.

What’s perhaps more interesting is that these rules not only set out what users shall not do (the usual list, including violating State security, inciting illegal assembly, etc.), but also provides for a new licensing procedure for microblogs.

This is not without precedent with respect to new technologies/businesses that the government has decided require more attention. For example, video file sharing sites had been in existence for some time before 2007/8, when the government stepped in and imposed a dedicated licensing system.

The content management provisions in the new rules are not really new, just a codification of what was already out there in terms of “self-regulation.” So why the need for a licensing system? It gives the government a new regulatory tool and puts the microblog operator in the position of needing an affirmative nod from the relevant officials.

In the absence of a licensing system, interaction between the government and operators would be limited to periodic content management issues or when the operator/users violated existing content rules. However, with a licensing system, operators must go to the government, hat in hand, and in effect prove that they have been following the rules and have the proper internal tools in place to handle content management. The difference may seem subtle, but in reality, this changes the relationship significantly. Obviously, the ability to withhold or delay a license (or license renewal) is a very useful weapon in the regulatory arsenal.

I don’t have any other comments at this point. While I’m sure there will be additional commentary out there on the specific language of the rules, I find it to be full of the usual politico-legal boilerplate and not very illuminating.
We’ll have to wait and see how this shakes out with enforcement and additional details (e.g. implementing rules).

Have a good weekend!

About The Author - Stan Abrams is a Beijing-based IP/IT lawyer and law professor with an M.A. from Johns Hopkins in International Relations, a J.D. from Boston College Law School, a B.A. from Pomona College, and writes at China Hearsay.  (EconMatters author archive here)

The views and opinions expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of EconMatters.

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